Many of Senator Chuck Hagel’s most vocal advocates like to compare Hagel to President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Like Eisenhower, Hagel views Israel through a realist prism and believes it would be in America’s interest to cultivate much closer ties to Arab states and the broader Muslim Middle East. There are 22 states in the Arab League (including Palestine and Syria, even if the latter is suspended), and that doesn’t include Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, and the many non-Arab Muslim states who dislike Israel’s existence.
When Eisenhower entered office, he sought to rectify the damage—at least as he saw it—caused by President Harry S. Truman’s recognition of Israel. He immediately moved to cast his lot with Israel’s Arab opponents. In 1956, when France, the United Kingdom, and Israel responded militarily to Egyptian strongman Gamal Abdul Nasser’s nationalization of the Suez Canal, Eisenhower sided with Nasser and forced France, the United Kingdom, and Israel to terminate hostility and withdraw. Nasser’s “victory” in the Suez Crisis—the successful consolidation of Egyptian control over the Suez Canal—was the greatest victory Arab nationalists won. Nasser became a household name throughout the region. Arab nationalists got a burst of adrenalin, which they used to bring down the Iraqi monarchy, the Yemeni imamate, and the Libyan monarchy, replacing each with radical states. That might be all well and good to realists, so long as these Arab nationalist states paid heed to U.S. national security interests. Alas, that was not to be. Even though Eisenhower courted Nasser and gave him the greatest gift of his career, Nasser and his fellow-travelers turned their backs almost immediately on the United States. As David Verbeteen, then a doctoral candidate at King’s College, London, explains:
The Eisenhower administration bent over backwards to avoid any policy that might vindicate the Arabs’ almost paranoid perception of U.S. favoritism toward Israel. Washington denied Israel arms and threatened the Jewish state with economic sanctions in 1953 because of its water crisis with Syria and its military reprisals in Sinai against Egyptian raids. The State Department expected Israel to make sweeping border adjustments in the framework of the Alpha and Gamma plans, which called for Israel to cede Negev territory in order to enable a land bridge between Egypt and Jordan. Further, the White House condemned Israel in 1956 for participating in the Anglo-French Suez campaign and forced it to retreat from the Sinai in 1957. Kenen’s objections to Eisenhower administration policies fell on deaf ears…
Why, then, did an exclusive U.S.-Arab alliance not solidify into a permanent fixture of U.S. policy? Simply put, reality intervened. Arab priorities were not those of Washington. While U.S. officials saw resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict as a precondition for a U.S.-Arab alliance against the Soviet Union, such a grouping was not to be. Arab leaders were unreliable and did not share the U.S. vision of international, let alone regional, security. Cairo, Damascus, and Baghdad grew closer to Moscow. These Arab nationalist and revolutionary regimes sought to undermine pro-Western governments in Lebanon and Jordan. The Middle East operated—and continues to operate—according to internal dynamics that are not easily channeled by external forces. Inter-Arab rivalries surfaced.
By the end of Eisenhower’s term, even Eisenhower realists understood that the reason why Washington needed Jerusalem was simply because Israel was a much better ally. As would be demonstrated repeatedly through the remainder of the Cold War, the United States got as much if not more from its relationship with Israel as Israel got from its relationship with the United States.
Perhaps in his confirmation hearings, Hagel can explain why he thinks Eisenhower’s assumptions about the Middle East fell flat. Let us hope he is aware of the history. Nasser’s expansionism with radio propaganda and conventional arms posed a formidable challenge and, indeed, led to destabilizing wars in the region. More than half a century later, it is a potentially nuclear-capable Islamic Republic of Iran that Hagel seeks to appease. The question is whether U.S. national security can now afford to re-learn Eisenhower’s mistakes.